Stump the Roaster

We are a bit off the back on getting this posted, but we have a list of good excuses! It’s a great article and deserves its place in the “first blog on the new website” DOMA Hall of Fame.

At the time, there was some official name for the event, but for now, let’s call it The Joe and Ryan Show.
By Rachel Toor

They came wearing skinny jeans and trucker hats, with rings in their noses and plugs in their ears. Arms (legs, back) were inked, hair cut shave-short on the sides, beards untouched by razor or scissor. They were mostly of the avocado-toast generation, mostly baristas and roasters.

They came to listen to two thirty-somethings nerd out over coffee. Joe Marrocco of Café Imports and Ryan Wilbur of La Marzocco sat on stools in front of DOMA’s Lucky 13 roaster. It was a coffee slam. It was coffee open mike. It was science class for hipsters.

Like the good teachers they are, Joe and Ryan started with fundamentals. “How do you define espresso?” Questions that seem to ask the obvious often evoke the most interesting responses. Someone earned some La Marzocco swag with an utterance that sounded like the line of a poem: lovely, dark, black, and creamy. And then, like a poem, the conversation turned. Toward science: extraction, pressure, concentration, speed, flavor, texture, color, strength. The owners in the audience defined espresso as something that must stand alone, or work as an ingredient in another sellable drink.

Do you roast espresso differently from other beans, Joe asked, Talmudically, and then, answered himself, “If necessary.”

Ryan asked the group, “Do you ever get frustrated making espresso?”

And here the conversation started to sound like it was a bunch of writers sitting around talking shop. You’re often frustrated. Always frustrated. There are too many variables to be able to produce something excellent every single time.

The water! Coffee is basically polluted water, but our water, according to these coffee geeks has, globally, become a cesspool. Too many particles. Sometimes you have to use reverse osmosis to get the crap out, and then you have to put minerals back in. Every city has different water. In places with lots of snow, salt gets into the H20. You can add calcium to make it more basic, and magnesium to balance it out. How does acidity taste?  Does it feel like vitamin C on your tongue, or super dry wine?

The ratios! The grind! The temperature! The pressure! The elevation! (“Has anyone ever tried to make coffee in Denver?”

A young woman with shiny hair and a high voice raised a tentative hand and said she’s tried to read all this stuff, all this science, and she just doesn’t get it. So the coffee geeks explained using analogies, they reassured. But then Joe went back to sounding like a physicist: “There’s a quality wave length, which is always going to vary. Your job is to shorten the wave length.”

It all comes down to this: Everyone has a Platonic cup of coffee in his mind, the god shot. It’s what he loves best in the world—a moment in time when everything comes together, a drink that is delicious and meaningful, that honors the farmers who grew the beans, the importers who pay them a fair price, the roasters who taste and test, and the baristas who play their machines like musical instruments. It’s more than a drink—it’s a manifestation of connection, relationships, loyalty, longevity, value. “Be real. Be in the moment right now. It’s all about that Zen thing, that’s what it’s all about,” said Joe, sounding like the Buddha.

Or like a cult leader. Or like any person who dwells in a niche world, with its own argot (to “dial it in” means, apparently, to taste a cup of espresso for the purposes of quality assurance), its celebrities unknown to the uninitiated, but whose names, in this group, are greeted with whoops and woots. Acronyms abound. The USBC, everyone here knows, is our country’s Barista Championship.

Indeed, if these guys weren’t competing to be the best puller of a cup of espresso, you might have found them at the International Math Competition, or gaming online, or doing physics at Fermilab. They compete and they train: five hours a day for two months, often in groups like marathoners who push and challenge each other to be better, to be the world’s best barista. These dudes have taken an interest in coffee to the nth degree. The pleasure in listening to them is like watching Project Runway, or Shark Tank, or The Great British Baking Show, or even, Best in Show. You get access to experts; you get to see the sausage being made.

Ultimately, sounding like a new mother or a Continental philosopher, Joe confessed, “None of us knows what the hell we’re doing in coffee.” But, he says, “We’re artists. That’s why we call it special.”

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